Much of the current posture of the UK Government is based on the default action enshrined in the European Withdrawal act, that at the end of the Article 50 period the UK leaves the European Union with or without an agreement.

This was changed previously to move that date from March to October, after MPs opposed to Theresa May's deal passed legislation forcing her to seek an extension.

Given that it is this default position that has led to discussion around proroguing parliament, and other quite extreme solutions, is it possible for MPs to pass legislation to change this default position from "No Deal" to revocation of Article 50? Thus putting the onus on the Government to get an acceptable deal through the house?

  • 4
    Boris, you have a whole team around you. Why not ask them?
    – Strawberry
    Aug 28, 2019 at 14:03

4 Answers 4


The premise of the question is flawed. The default outcome is not enshrined in the EU (Withdrawal) Act, but in Article 50 itself. If the UK takes no action, its EU membership will end at the end of October.

For anything else to happen, the UK must do something: approve the exiting agreement, request another extension perhaps for an attempt to negotiate a new agreement, or revoke Article 50. The EU (Withdrawal) Act could be amended to require the government to do one of those things if an agreement is not reached and approved before October 31, but that doesn't guarantee that the government will actually do it, so it doesn't change the default.

The question contemplates changing the default to revocation of article 50. This might be implemented as an amendment to the act whereby the government is required to revoke Article 50 if there's no agreement in place by October 31st. Of course, if there were no such agreement and the PM failed to revoke Article 50, it would provoke a political crisis in the UK, but that probably would not prevent the lapsing of its EU membership.

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    Parliament could make it a criminal offence for the Prime Minister to fail to revoke the Article 50 notification, with a minimum punishment of a whole-life prison sentence. That should do the trick.
    – Mike Scott
    Aug 27, 2019 at 20:22
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    More realistically, the EU has noted that only extreme circumstances would justify a second delay, but a UK law to Remain would be that extreme. This should give the UK time to sort the mess.
    – MSalters
    Aug 28, 2019 at 0:22
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    @MSalters The EU can’t impose a delay, the UK has to request it. A PM who refused to revoke the Article 50 notification would presumably also refuse to request a delay.
    – Mike Scott
    Aug 28, 2019 at 5:01
  • @MikeScott that sounds very naive at best - by the time parliament could pass such law, Prime Minister would resign and you wouldn't have anyone to replace him. That would be purely exercise in pointlessness.
    – Mołot
    Aug 28, 2019 at 11:58
  • @Mołot There will always be someone to replace the Prime Minister. If no Conservative will take the job, then the Leader of the Opposition will become caretaker Prime Minister for the duration of an election.
    – Mike Scott
    Aug 28, 2019 at 16:03

is it possible for MPs to pass legislation to change this default position from "No Deal" to revocation of Article 50?

Technically yes, if time can be allocated in parliament.

Politically no.

Firstly because the majority parties apparently see no political gain in going against the decision of the electorate in the referendum. The number of MPs persuaded of the benefits of revocation seem to be a minority still.

Secondly because the government controls the timetable and abhors a revocation.

  • Parliament controls its own timetable, but normally chooses to give that control to the government. It can vote to suspend the standing order that does so, and take back control of the timetable. It did so earlier this year to pass Yvette Cooper’s Bill requiring the government to seek an Article 50 extension.
    – Mike Scott
    Aug 27, 2019 at 20:21

Revocation still requires the Government to send a letter to the EU, in order for it to take effect.

Parliament is highly unlikely* do that itself, but it could in theory compel the Government to do that, similar to how the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 required the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Brexit.

(* As a commenter rightly points out, Parliament is sovereign, and its powers have few limitations. However, it's common in democratic states for foreign policy to be mostly handled by the executive, with the legislature's role typically limited to approving treaties, possibly approving the use of armed forces, and in parliamentary states, generally holding the government to account.

So while in theory, parliament could enact a law to, for example, revoke the UK's invocation of Article 50, it would be crossing a highly significant line. As with many discussions of the British constitution, convention is extremely important; and what is theoretically possible versus what is practically possible are often different things.)

  • Can you cite "probably"? The EU doesn't specify whom has the right, and Parliament is sovereign in the UK.
    – Yakk
    Aug 28, 2019 at 19:07

There is a petition to ask the Government to change the default in such a way. The threshold for responses for a Government response has passed and the (May) Government responded on the 17th of April, with a firm (double) no:

This Government will not revoke the Article 50 notice.


As the Prime Minister said at the April European Council, we have agreed a flexible extension with the EU until the end of October. However, it should be clear that this Government will not revoke Article 50.

There are currenly around 64 thousand signatures and if it reaches 100 thousand then a parliamentary debate must be considered to discuss this.

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    The petition is a bit vague. Are they asking for a law that requires the revocation of Art 50 on or before Oct 31 if no agreement is reached? Would a promise from the PM to that effect satisfy them? What exactly does the petition call for?
    – phoog
    Aug 27, 2019 at 16:45
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    @phoog It doesn't matter. Parliamentary debates on petitions are not binding on anybody. And "a parliamentary debate must be considered" does not mean the same as "a parliamentary debate is mandatory".
    – alephzero
    Aug 27, 2019 at 21:26
  • @alephzero They state that a debate will take place unless there has been one recently already, or there is already one planned, on the same subject. petition.parliament.uk/help
    – James
    Aug 28, 2019 at 8:58
  • @phoog The petitions are written by lay-persons with only a cursory review for inappropriate content before publications. The purpose of the debate is to flesh out the petition.
    – James
    Aug 28, 2019 at 9:50
  • "However, it should be clear that this Government will not revoke Article 50." Well, THAT govenment isn't in power any more. Boris has taken over from May and replaced the cabinet.
    – Maaark
    Aug 28, 2019 at 11:35

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